Thursday, November 22, 2007

France taking charge in Lebanon deadlock

Good post I found on SyriaComment by a frequent user, Idaf.

It’s been quite a busy 48 hours in diplomatic circles in Damascus, and the focus of all this diplomacy is the upcoming Lebanese president.

France is back to realism on Lebanon. One key result of Sarkozy’s trip to the US few weeks ago was France taking back Lebanon into its sphere of influence after two years of being closer to Saudi and the US administration. France knows very well that any lasting solution in Lebanon should include all the internal and external key stakeholders. It is also fully aware that Syria is on the top of the list of external stakeholders in Lebanon to be accommodated as Lebanon’s stability is a matter of national security for Syria, but merely foreign policy and power for other stakeholders such as Saudi and the US administration.

This is why since Sarkozy’s “massage of American ego” in his speech to the congress, he got a freehand in Lebanon and immediately moved to full engagement with Damascus to reach a sustainable solution to Lebanon’s presidency.

Yesterday, Sarkozy called his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, reopening top-level contacts after a three-year break in a bid end the political crisis in Lebanon. In addition, Sarkozy’s Chief of Staff, Claude Gueant, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus “to seek support for Paris’s efforts”. Moreover, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, has been to Damascus a couple of times in the past few weeks.

Apparently, this French pragmatism is good for Lebanon. During most of the Syrian time in Lebanon, the Lebanese president was always a Syrian-French compromise. France is back to the formula that worked in the past in Lebanon. This close consultation on the Lebanese president between France and Syria however, caused many in the M14 group to lose sleep at night. Seeing Paris getting closer to Damascus, Hariri is desperately trying to open new channel with an ally of Syria hoping to pull Russia away from Syria. An amateurish step that Russia will definitely try to milk without giving back much to the inexperienced Hariri junior.

Jumblat and Jeajea seem to be the ones to lose most by having a consensus president that most external and internal parties agree on. It is becoming clearer that they are the ones that are blocking this consensus. France’s Kouchner who is struggling in Lebanon to reach a solution was frustrated by “some parties” in Lebanon that are blocking such solution and has threatened to “name the spoilers publicly”. Clearly, he did not mean Aoun and definitely not Syria’s allies Hizbulla and Berri. If the pro-Syria parties were the ones he meant then from the French perspective, there would have been no reason to keep their names secret, on the contrary this would’ve make it easier for the French to push their candidates for the presidency. Kouchner also added that Syria had “accepted Cardinal Sfeir’s list of potential presidents”.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that Syria and Iran are not the spoilers in Lebanon this time. Pascale Andreani denied that Syria or Iran is working to block the Presidential elections in Lebanon. The spokeswoman demanded in a statement Tuesday non engagement in such disputes on this subject.

Kouchner’s threat was clearly targeted at someone in the March 14 camp (Jumblat and maybe Jeajea). This threat has worked with Jumblat and in the last few days he stopped launching his anti-Syria and anti-opposition inflammatory statements, and for the first time, Jumblat obediently started to act reasonable. He accepted Sfeir’s list and started talking about concessions to reach an agreement on the president instead of his usual daily inflammatory rhetoric.

France has a tough job saving Lebanon from a potential civil war scenario. Many external and internal parties have managed to torpedo earlier attempts by the Arab League, the EU and the UN. It seams that the French are doing a good job so far. They do understand the Lebanese “system” better and they follow a realist and pragmatic approach. It seems that the neo-conservative elements in the US administration have accepted defeat in Lebanon. If so then this would mean a diminishing Saudi role as well in the power struggles in Lebanon to the benefit of French and Syrian influence. This has worked well in the past to a certain extent in the Lebanese “arena”. In the future, if the Lebanese public would not abandon their sectarian Zai’m culture, and opt instead for an independent, secular and powerful president then Lebanon will continue to be an “arena” for power struggle in the Middle East for France, US, Israel, Saudi, Syria, Iran and other powerful players in the Middle East, as was the case since the country’s creation.

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